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The true story of The Greenbrier Ghost – a remarkable case in which the victim’s spirit testified about its own violent death, and named the murderer!
Her daughter was only 23. Yet Mary Jane Heaster watched through tear-soaked eyes as the body of her young daughter was lowered into the cold ground. It was a gray, dreary day in late January, 1897 as Elva Zona Heaster Shue was laid to rest in the cemetery near Greenbrier, West Virginia. Her death came much too soon, thought Mary Jane. Too unexpectedly… too mysteriously.
The coroner listed the cause of death as complications from childbirth. But Zona, as she preferred to be called, had not been giving birth when she died. In fact, as far as anyone knew, the woman was not even pregnant. Mary Jane was certain that her daughter’s death was quite unnatural. If only Zona could speak from the grave, she hoped, and explain what had really brought about her untimely passing.
In one of the most remarkable cases on U.S. court records, Zona Heaster Shue did speak from her grave, revealing not only how she died – but at whose hand. Her ghost’s testimony not only named her own murderer, but helped in convicting the culprit in a court of law. It is the only case on U.S. lawbooks in which the testimony from the spirit of a murder victim aided in resolving the crime.
Just two years before Zona’s death, Mary Jane Heaster had endured another hardship with her daughter. Zona had given birth to a child out of wedlock – a scandalous event in the late 1800s. The father, whoever he was, did not marry Zona, and so the young woman was in need of a husband. In 1896, Zona chanced to meet Erasmus Stribbling Trout Shue. Going by the name Edward, he was newly arrived in Greenbrier, looking to make a new life for himself as a blacksmith. Upon meeting, Edward and Zona took an instant liking to one another and a courtship began.
Mary Jane, however, was not pleased. Protective of her daughter, especially after her recent difficulty, she did not approve of her Zona’s choice in Edward. There was something about him she didn’t like. He was virtually a stranger, after all. And there was something she didn’t trust… perhaps even something evil that her daughter, blinded by love, could not see. Despite her mother’s protests, however, Zona and Edward were married on October 26, 1896.
Three months passed. On January 23, 1897, an 11-year-old African American boy named Andy Jones entered the Shue home and found Zona lying on the floor. He had been sent there by Edward to ask Zona if she needed anything from the market. He stood for a moment looking at the woman, at first not knowing what to make of the scene. Her body was stretched out straight with her legs together. One arm was at her side and the other resting on her body. Her head was tilted to one side.
At first Andy wondered if the woman was asleep on the floor. He stepped quietly toward her. “Mrs. Shue?” he called softly. Something was not right. The boy’s heart began to race as panic swept over his body. Something was dreadfully wrong. Andy bolted from the Shue house and rushed home to tell his mother what he had found.
The local physician and coroner, Dr. George W. Knapp, was summoned. He did not arrive at the Shue residence for about an hour, and by that time Edward had already taken Zona’s lifeless body to an upstairs bedroom. When Knapp entered the room, he was astonished to see that Edward had redressed her in her best Sunday clothing – a beautiful dress with a high neck and stiff collar. Edward had also covered her face with a veil.
Obviously, Zona was dead. But how? Dr. Knapp tried to examine the body to determine cause of death, but all the while Edward, crying bitterly – almost hysterically – cradled his dead wife’s head in his arms. Dr. Knapp could find nothing out of the ordinary that would explain the death of what appeared to have been a healthy young woman. But then he noticed something – a slight discoloration on the right side of her cheek and neck. The doctor wanted to examine the marks, but Edward protested so vehemently that Knapp ended the examination, announcing that poor Zona had died of “an everlasting faint.” Officially and for the record, he inexplicably wrote that the cause of death was “childbirth.” Just as mysterious was his failure to notify the police about the strange marks on her neck that he was unable to examine.
THE WAKE AND THE GHOST
Mary Jane Heaster was beside her self with grief. She felt that Zona’s marriage to Edward would come to a bad end… but not this. Were her apprehensions about Edward more dreadful than she imagined? Were her motherly instincts correct in not trusting this stranger?
Her suspicions deepened at Zona’s wake. Edward was acting strangely; not exactly like a husband in mourning. Some of the neighbors attending the wake noticed it, too. One moment he seemed grief-struck, another moment highly agitated and nervous. He had placed a pillow on one side of Zona’s head and a rolled up cloth on the other, as if keeping it propped in place. He refused to allow anyone near her. Her neck was covered by a large scarf that Edward claimed was her favorite and that he wanted her buried in it. At the end of the wake, as the coffin was being prepared to be taken to the cemetery, several people noticed an odd looseness of Zona’s head.
Zona was buried. Despite all of the strangeness surrounding her daughter’s death, Mary Jane Heaster had no proof of any kind that Edward was somehow to blame, or that Zona’s death was in any way unnatural. The suspicions and the questions might have been buried along with Zona and eventually forgotten had not some unexplained phenomena begun to take place.
Mary Jane had taken the rolled up white sheet from Zona’s coffin before it was sealed. And now, days after the funeral she tried to return it to Edward. In keeping with his peculiar behavior, he refused to take it. Mary Jane brought it back home with her, deciding to keep it as a memory of her daughter. She noticed. however, that it had a strange, indefinable odor. She filled a basin with water in which to wash the sheet. When she submerged the sheet, the water turned red, the color bleeding from the sheet. Mary Jane jumped back in astonishment. She took a pitcher and scooped some of the water from the basin. It was clear.
The once-white sheet was now stained pink, and nothing Mary Jane would do could remove the stain. She washed it, boiled it and hung it in the sun. The stain remained. It was a sign, Mary Jane thought. A message from Zona that her death was far from natural.
If only Zona could tell her what happened and how. Mary Jane prayed that Zona would come back from the dead and reveal the circumstances of her death. Mary Jane made this prayer every day for weeks… and then her prayer was answered.
Cold winter winds swirled around the streets of Greenbrier. As the early darkness crept into Mary Jane Heaster’s home every night, she lit her oil lamps and candles for light, and stoked the wood stove for warmth. From out of this dim atmosphere, so Mary Jane claimed, the spirit of her beloved Zona appeared to her on four nights. During these spectral visits, Zona told her mother how she had died.
Edward was cruel and abusive to her, Zona said. And on the day of her death his violence went too far. Edward became irrationally angry at her when she told them she had no meat for his dinner. He was overcome with rage and lashed out at his wife. He savagely attacked the defenseless woman and broke her neck. To prove her account, the ghost slowly turned its head completely around at the neck.
Zona’s ghost had confirmed her mother’s worst suspicions. It all fit: Edward’s strange behavior and the way he attempted to protect his dead wife’s neck from movement and inspection. He had murdered the poor woman! Mary Jane took her story to John Alfred Preston, the local prosecutor. Preston listened patiently, if skeptically, to Mrs. Heaster’s story of the telltale ghost. He certainly had his doubts about it, but there was enough that was unusual or suspicious about the case, and he decided to pursue it.
Preston ordered Zona’s body exhumed for an autopsy. Edward protested the action, but had no power to stop it. He began to show signs of great stress. He said publicly that he knew he would be arrested for the crime, but that “they will not be able to prove I did it.” Prove what?, Edward’s friends wondered, unless he knew she had been murdered.
The autopsy revealed – just as the ghost has said – that Zona’s neck was broken and her windpipe crushed from violent strangulation. Edward Shue was arrested on charge of murder.
As he awaited trial in jail, Edward’s rather unsavory background came to light. He had served time in jail on a previous occasion, being convicted of stealing a horse. Edward had been married twice before, each marriage suffering under his violent temper. His first wife divorced him after he had angrily thrown all of her possessions out of their house. His second wife wasn’t so lucky; she died under mysterious circumstances of a blow to the head. Once again, Mary Jane’s intuition about this man was verified. He was evil.
And maybe he was a bit of a psychopath. His jailkeepers and cellmates reported that Edward seemed to be in good spirits while in jail. In fact, he bragged that it was intention to eventually have seven wives. Being only 35 years old, he said, he should easily be able to realize his ambition. Apparently, he was certain that he would not be convicted of Zona’s death. What evidence was there, after all?
The evidence against Edward may have only been circumstantial at best. But he didn’t count on the testimony of an eyewitness to the murder – Zona.
Spring had come and gone, and it was now late June when Edward’s trial for murder came before a jury. The prosecutor lined up several people to testify against Edward, citing his peculiar behavior and his unguarded comments. But would that be enough to convict him? There were no other witnesses to the crime, and Edward had not been placed at or near the scene at the time the murder allegedly took place. Taking the stand in his defense, he vehemently denied the charges.
What of Zona’s ghost? The court had ruled that prosecuting testimony about the ghost and what it claimed was inadmissible. But then Edward’s defending lawyer made a mistake that perhaps sealed his client’s fate. He called Mary Jane Heaster to the stand. In an attempt, perhaps, to show that the woman was unbalanced – maybe even insane – and prejudicial against his client, he brought up the matter of Zona’s ghost.
Seated on the witness stand in front of a packed courtroom and an attentive jury, Mary Jane told the story of how Zona’s ghost appeared to her and accused Edward of the foul deed – that her neck had been “squeezed off at the first verterbrae.”
Whether or not the jury took Mary Jane’s – or rather Zona’s – testimony seriously is not known. But they did hand down a verdict of guilty on the charge of murder. Normally, such a conviction would have brought a sentence of death, but because of the circumstantial nature of the evidence, Edward was sentenced to life in prison. He died on March 13, 1900 in the Moundsville, W.V. penitentiary.
Was the jury swayed, even a little, by the story of Zona’s ghost? Was there even a ghost at all? Or was Mary Jane Heaster so convinced that Edward Shue had murdered her daughter that she made up the story to help convict him? In either case, without the story of Zona’s ghost, Mary Jane may never have had the courage to approach the prosecutor, and Edward may never have been brought to trial. And Zona’s ghost would have remained unavenged.
A highway historical marker near Greenbrier commemorates Zona and the unusual court case surrounding her death:
Interred in nearby cemetery is
Zona Heaster Shue
Her death in 1897 was presumed natural until her spirit appeared to her mother to describe how she was killed by her husband Edward. Autopsy on the exhumed body verified the apparition’s account. Edward, found guilty of murder, was sentenced to the state prison. Only known case in which testimony from ghost helped convict a murderer.